Here’s a familiar scene. It’s time for the children to go visit their grandparents, so the family piles into the car. Everyone is excited and full of anticipation as little Stevie is strapped into the back seat next to sister Jane, with an array of toys and snacks between them that would almost feed an army. The five hours of driving will surely fly by.
But within 30 minutes a plaintive voice from the back calls out, “Are we almost there?” which is merely the cue to four hours of whining, tears and complaints: “I don’t want to go. I want to go back home. Why can’t we go back home?”
Most parents can identify with this scene in one way or another. It is a classic case of unrealized anticipation. On the one hand, the children look forward to the fun and excitement of visiting grandmom and granddad. On the other hand, the journey seems endless, restricted and unfulfilling, no matter how many things we drag along to make it bearable.
In many ways this is a picture of the Christian life. We are promised so much, yet our day-to-day experience seems to present us with something else. And it goes further: We are told that as Christians we already have certain things, yet at the same time we are told that we must wait for those things.
- We are told that we experience the Kingdom of Christ now, yet we anticipate the coming of his Kingdom when Christ returns (Romans 14:17, 2 Timothy 4:1).
- We experience the resurrection of Christ now, yet we await and look forward to our own resurrection (Philippians 3:10, 2 Timothy 2:18).
- We live in the New Jerusalem now, but we anticipate the coming of the New Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 21:10).
We find ourselves living in an in-between state. We have left our old home, but we are not yet in the new. We’re still on the journey, but with an overlap, a transitional state, in which both the old and the new play a part. The old life has gone, but we have not yet managed to shake off its practices. We have been brought into a new life, but we don’t always feel its freedom and the fullness of its joy.
It is this transitional state that we find most difficult. We know that the work of Jesus on the cross has made us right with God. His death for us deals with the consequences of our sinful nature and its acts, not through anything that we have done but entirely because “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). That is the Gospel–the Good News–that has set us free from the crushing burden of sin. Sin’s penalty had been dealt with, and we are free. As a result, we look forward with longing to being in the presence of our Savior, where sin cannot enter so we will be free from it completely. Yet somehow we find ourselves battling with the power of sin in a continual, daily fight in which it seems that often we are not victorious. We feel vulnerable and defeated, and then ashamed and burdened and trapped.
So the big question is, “How can I handle the power of sin?” That is exactly the issue that the Apostle Paul deals with in Romans 6. We have been set free from sin, and one day we will be set free from sin, but in the meantime, how can I now be set free from sin?
The first thing Paul points out is the danger and even the illogic of giving in and saying, “Oh well, we are all sinners, so don’t worry about it. Just carry on sinning and look forward to being in Heaven, where talk of sin will all be in the past tense.” His answer to that attitude is, “No way! We died to sin. … how can we live in it any longer?” (Cf. Romans 6:1). It simply will not do to say that I can sin and confess it and depend on God’s grace to forgive, then sin again and confess it again, with unending repetition.
Yet, that is what we as Christians so often do, isn’t it? Do that often enough and you will eventually find yourself forgetting the confession altogether. And you simply cannot blame your upbringing, or the temperament that you inherited from your parents or the circumstances in which you find yourself. Admit it: your sin is always your fault.
So what should we do when we find the pressures of sin so powerful? Our immediate reaction is to say, “I need to be stronger so that I can resist temptation in whatever enticing way it presents itself to me.”
Ironically, the reason we fail is exactly the opposite–it is because we are not weak enough! The way Paul puts it is a call to remember that we are dead to sin, and you can’t get any weaker than when you are dead. At that point, there is no strength at all! (Romans 6:1-4).
The fact is, says Paul, when you became a Christian, you were baptized into Christ
Jesus, and that means you were baptized into his death. “You died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). “We died to sin” (Romans 6:2). You have been “crucified with him” (Romans 6:6). That is the end of you. To try to deal with the power of sin by becoming stronger so that you can fight it is, therefore, counterproductive and bound to fail. Start by recognizing that you are dead and buried with Christ. If you are a Christian, this is a fact.
That leads to the next step, which is to act on the fact that you (your old life before you became a Christian) are dead. It is not enough just to know it; you must act on it.
If we died, the old life with all the built-in bias to the lure of sin has no power at all. You can’t tempt a dead man! So Paul says, “anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (Romans 6:7). Once you grasp that fact, you will understand the futility and absurdity of trying to get stronger to fight sin. Stay dead and there’s no problem. “You were crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6).
Paul explains in Romans 5:15-17 that when we were born into this world we were descendants of Adam and we inherited his bias toward sin. Just as an apple tree produces apples, so a descendant of Adam produces sin. But the work of Jesus was to take us out of Adam and put us into Christ: we died to Adam, which is why one of Paul’s favorite phrases is in Christ. Of course, we feel the temptation and power of sin, but we remind ourselves, I am dead to my old life, and I am living a new life. I am now in Christ. As someone once put it, when sin comes knocking at the door, ask Jesus to answer it, because you are in Him!
The third step toward freedom from the power of sin is to count on the fact that you have died to sin (Romans 6:11). “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (Romans 6:12).
Here Paul gets practical. We can get very vague and theoretical about overcoming sin, but his advice is realistic and down to earth. “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness” (Romans 6:13). It simply means that you recognize that your feet and hands and mouth and eyes are no longer your own. Yours have died. The ones you now have are to be offered to God as instruments of righteousness. Start each day by saying “Lord, here are my hands, my feet and my eyes. I offer them as Your instruments that are no longer mine. I want them to be used only as instruments for righteousness.”
Watchman Nee, a famous Christian teacher from China, illustrated how this works in practice. A Christian was traveling by train and met three non-Christians who wanted him to join them in a gambling game of cards, since four people were needed. “I am sorry to disappoint you,” he said, “but I cannot join your game, for I have not brought my hands with me.”
Astonished, they asked, “What do you mean?” The Christian replied, “Oh, this pair of hands does not belong to me.” He went on to explain that he had died in Christ and had been given a new life. The parts of his body were, therefore, not his but Christ’s.
Living in a transition age, having left the old life and anticipating the new life in Christ in His presence one day, we often call out like little Stevie, “Are we almost there?” We do so because we are troubled by the continuing power of sin. Like Paul, we say, we “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” At the moment we are in the “not yet” time, and it’s often painful. Paul’s appeal is for us to see ourselves as dead to sin. Count on it every day by offering the parts of your body to Christ alone so that “sin shall not be your master” (Romans 6:14).